Thursday, October 19, 2006

In defense of "getting happy"

I came across an interesting post at Scotty Williams' blog, Réformateur Créole Noir, that caught my eye. It's title was, "Despiritualizing Shouting in the Black Church". I recommend you read it, especially if you, like me, grew up in the traditional Black Church.

I'll admit it: I'm very sentimental. My wife, Catherine, laughs at me, because I can be so sentimental about...anything! I have especially strong feelings about the Black Church and the sights and sounds of the church of my childhood, especially the phenomenon of people "getting happy".
If you grew up in a traditional Black church--whether Baptist, Pentecostal ("Sanctified") or Methodist (A.M.E., C.M.E., or A.M.E. Zion)--you know what "getting happy" is all about. For the uninitiated, to "get happy" is to be so overcome with emotion in church that you can no longer contain yourself. Some people will shout, some scream, others will jump and dance, still others will walk or run. The expressions of religious emotion are as varied as the individuals so moved.

I well remember how, when I was a young child (I'm thinking 35-38 years ago), some people in our AME Church (and we AMEs were supposed to be pretty stiff, compared to the Baptists and "Sanctified" churches), they would holler and shout: "Thank you, Jesus!", "Hallelujah!", "Praise His name!".
Our choir director, on occasion, after leading the choir in some rousing old gospel selection, would seat the choir and, before she could get back to her own seat, would let loose with a piercing scream (it always startled me). Apparently, she couldn't take it no more and just had to let it out! (You will pardon my grammar, won't you?)

One dear lady had her own way of "shouting": she would jump up, spin around, fall back down in her seat and rapidly and alternately stamp her feet on the floor (kind of like running in place), then jump back up and spin some more, fall back down and stamp her feet, etc. All the while she would be shouting, "Hallelujah!" This would go on until she got it out of her system.

Another sweet old lady (she was in her 80s by this time) would "get happy", it seemed, most Sundays. I remember, she would holler, "Thank you, Jesus!", cry and get red in the face (she was a fair-skinned black woman). What fascinated me about her was that she had a skinny left arm and a fat right arm (Many years before she had a mastectomy which had the unfortunate side effect of permanently swelling that arm with lymph fluid)! Well, she'd be waving that skinny arm and that fat arm, and people on either side would be ducking those arms! Then again, she might rear back on the pew so that people behind her had to watch out for those arms, too! At that age, it was all a fascinating spectacle for me.
The question now arises, was all this wrong? Was this merely emotionalism, something totally inappropriate for God-honoring worship? I think Scotty Williams gives an excellent answer, but I'd like to put in my two cents, also.
Back then, when I would ask "Grandma" (my great-grandmother), "What was wrong with Mrs. So-and-so?" Grandma would tell me, "It's the Holy Ghost." Well, judging from what I would see on Sunday morning, I thought the Holy Ghost was pretty spooky! Apparently, "it" just took over people and made them do and say the things I saw them do and say.
Now, decades later, having experienced the New Birth, and knowing what it feels like to actually want to shout (I'll admit it, I have wished I could be so free, so unselfconscious, so uninhibited that I could outwardly and unashamedly express what I've at times felt in worship), and from years of just observing "my folks" (Blacks) in church, I think I can say that shouting or "getting happy" has nothing to do with the Holy Ghost/Spirit taking over people. The emotional expressions I observed were just that: expressions of human emotion. Shouting is simply an emotional and human response to some kind of stimulus.
The crucial question is: What is the stimulus that motivates and moves us emotionally in worship? I would agree with Williams that, for some, emotional release becomes an end in itself. I would also add that for some "up front" people (preachers, singers and musicians, particularly), stirring up emotional responses from the audience is their goal. When emotional response becomes the goal of "worship", I think we have the wrong motivation and risk making an idol of emotion.
However, I feel the opposite extreme is wrong also. Cold, sterile, purely cerebral, emotionless worship is God-dishonoring. Borrowing from Jonathan Edwards, I do not understand how we can worship God and not feel emotional sometimes. I do not see how we can be dispassionate about our God and Savior, how we can be dispassionate about "so great salvation". When I think of the lost condition I was in, how God chose me in Christ before the foundation of the world, that He knew me before I was born, drew me unto Himself, caused me to be born again, put His Spirit within me, regards me as complete in Christ, no condemnation, kept by His power, working all things together for my good, and that one day I'll see Him face to face, be fully conformed to the likeness of His Son, and be with Him forever...! I can't be emotionless about that!
Now, I know not everyone's wired the same, we don't all feel and express our emotions the same way or to the same degree, but I have to agree with the ol' folks: "I wouldn't have religion I couldn't feel sometime!"
That's why we need to check our motives. What moves us emotionally? It should be the truth about God, whether preached or sung or thought about that moves us emotionally (Have you ever just thought about some truth from God's word, and felt like shouting, "Hallelujah!"?). That truth is to be found in God's word--the Scriptures--and (here is where the Holy Spirit comes in) it is the Holy Spirit, working through that word, who changes our life.
You see, it's not a Hammond organ or a tambourine, but a holy life that should accompany a holy dance.
So, what about those folk who used to "get happy" in my home church so many years ago (they're all deceased now, by the way)? I don't know if they were motivated by the truth of God's word or a well-sung phrase from the choir. I hope their motives were pure. I hope I will meet them in heaven. God knows.
However, I can make sure my motives are God-honoring. I can make sure that when I teach and preach the word, I give the people some truth that they can shout about. I can make sure that when I sing a song or lead a choir or congregation in song that the song is in line with the truth as revealed in God's word.
I still think it's a beautiful scene when that lame man in Acts 3, after being healed, "entered the temple...walking and leaping and praising God" (Acts 3:8). Would that all God's people felt that kind of liberty.

1 comment:

Scotty J. Williams said...

Hello mon frer, and I pray that the Lord continues to bless you heart and mind. I'm in full agreement with you on the subject of shouting. Like you I in no way believe that the gifts have ceased, and that cold, dead, sterile, and lifeless worship is not good at all. I pray that we as Black folk can get on the ball with this issue, and have biblical worship. Keep on writing and blessing others as you have blessed me.

Semper Reformanda,
~Scotty (The Black Creole Reformer)